Newshub headline with Children's Wisconsin logo
Unhappy girl at the dinner table not eating

Picky eaters put parents in a pickle

Maybe you’re familiar with this scenario: You’ve prepared a delicious meal for the whole family to enjoy, but there’s one particular family member who has made it loud and clear that they are not going to enjoy it. In fact, this person says it’s either grilled cheese or bust.

Picky eating affects a lot of kids (and their families)

I’ve seen and heard of many parents who blame themselves for it, thinking it must be their fault for not introducing certain foods early enough or being too lax in discipline. But the truth is, in most cases, it’s just a normal part of development. Kids are still growing, and their taste buds are changing, so what tastes good to them one week could be different the next. Most grow out of it and learn to enjoy all types of food, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating with in the moment.

There are several schools of thought on how to deal with picky eaters, one being a hardline stance of telling the child, “You eat what we have, or you don’t eat.” While you definitely don’t want to turn yourself into a short-order cook at every meal, there are other ways to deal with the problem that don’t have to involve confrontations or ultimatums.

What you can do

Keep in mind that your role as a parent is to provide healthy food at regular times. It’s your child’s job to decide how much of that to eat. Here are some tips to make mealtime more manageable.

  • Be flexible: It’s not the worst thing in the world for your child to not eat much or even skip a meal on occasion. Going with the flow has the added benefit of not having dinnertime be associated in your child’s mind with constant fighting.
  • Be patient: It can take 10 to 15 tries for a child to accept a new food, so don’t give up hope after one negative experience.
  • Be simple: Too many choices can be confusing for a child. Also, offer the new food at the beginning of the meal when you know your child is hungry, and include it alongside foods you already know your child likes.
  • Be aware: The whole notion of spoiling your appetite is real. That’s why, in addition to just being sound nutritional advice, you don’t want to fill your child up with sugary drinks like fruit juice, Kool-Aid, sports drinks or soda. That stuff not only will fill them up with empty calories, but also make them crave sweeter food that might not be the healthiest.
  • Be a team: Let your child help with grocery shopping and cooking. I often recommend aiming for five different colors of fruits and vegetables over the course of a week, and encourage kids to make a list of fruits and veggies for each color that they like to eat.
  • Be a good example: Make sure your food choices reflect the kinds of choices you want your child to make. Remember that there is strength – and in this case, health – in numbers.

While it is true that most kids grow out of picky eating, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking to a pediatrician about it. Recent research has linked “selective eating” in some children to other health issues such as separation anxiety and ADHD. So if this is an issue in your household, feel free to bring it up at your child’s next visit.